TAMPA, Fla. (AP) – Leave it to Ricky Williams to add an intriguing twist to an already interesting storyline.

The enigmatic running back returns today from a four-game suspension for violating the NFL substance-abuse policy when Miami visits Tampa Bay.

His presence following a one-year retirement that ended when he showed up for training camp is sure to overshadow a long-awaited matchup between rookies and former Auburn teammates Ronnie Brown and Carnell “Cadillac” Williams.

The Dolphins, off to a 2-2 start after going 4-12 without Ricky last season, couldn’t be happier or more supportive.

“He might not have been welcomed back last year at a certain time. I was upset. I’m selfish – I wanted to win. I was angry. But that’s last year,” linebacker Zach Thomas said.

“He has showed he’s committed to the team, and he’s a good guy. He doesn’t want it to be about him. He wants it to be about the team.”

Brown and Cadillac Williams were two of the first five players selected in this year’s draft, close friends who shared playing time in college and still talk on the telephone three or four times a week.

The rookies circled Sunday on their calendars as soon as the Dolphins picked Brown second overall and the Buccaneers (4-1) took Cadillac at No. 5.

Both feel the relationship they built at Auburn will help Brown deal with splitting Miami’s workload with Ricky Williams back in the fold.

“I’ve already been through a situation like this. I think it could be pretty helpful on this level, with it being my first season and the NFL season is a little bit different than the college season,” Brown said. “I think it’s helpful from the standpoint of being healthy toward the end of the season.”

Dolphins coach Nick Saban has not said how much he plans to play Williams, who hasn’t appeared in a regular season game since December 2003, this week.

Brown has rushed for 229 yards in his last two games, but the Bucs are bracing for a heavy dose of both runners.

“Ronnie can do a lot of different things. Part of the reason we liked him was the fact that he had versatility as a player, with his size and blocking ability. The fact that he played in college with Cadillac, and played a dual role with him, is something that was a consideration with us in the draft,” Saban said.

“It’s going to be difficult for us to do it short term. But long term, we’d like to have both of these guys be a significant part of our offense.”

Cadillac Williams has been instrumental in the resurgence of the Bucs, who won five games last year. He sat out last week’s 14-12 loss to the New York Jets because of a foot sprain and sore hamstring, but was optimistic about playing against the Dolphins after practicing Wednesday and Thursday.

“Realistically, I think there’s a pretty good chance,” he said.

Most weeks, the first regular-season meeting between players with the history Brown and Cadillac share would be the major theme on game day.

But with Ricky returning after stunning teammates and the rest of the NFL by walking away last year, the showdown between hotshot rookies looms as more of a sideshow – especially with Cadillac officially listed as “questionable” to play.

Brown expects to see his friend on the field.

“The type of person that Carnell is, I know if there’s any way he can be out there, he’ll be out there because he wants to help the team. I know that’s the main thing for Carnell,” Brown said.

“At the same time, I think he’s going to make a good decision. If he feels like he’s not going to be as effective as he would, I don’t think he’ll jeopardize himself to do that.”

In the short time Brown has been around Ricky Williams, the rookie feels the two have developed what could blossom into a nice friendship.

While he doesn’t know if it’ll ever rival what he and Cadillac have, he’s happy with the way the relationship is progressing.

“It takes time. Carnell and myself, we were together for four years, so we had the opportunity to hang out a lot. On this level, it’s a little different. People have lives as far as families and stuff away from here, so you don’t find yourself hanging out as much,” Brown said.

Ricky Williams declined all requests for interviews this week, saying he would wait until after playing a game to speak.

He impressed Saban and his teammates during the suspension, working out on his own and attending meetings at the team’s training facility.

If there were lingering doubts about him when training camp began, they’re gone.

“If you come back and say, “Look guys, I made a mistake. I’m back. I’m ready to go and I’m with you,’ …. it is easy to forgive,” defensive end Jason Taylor said. “We’ve all made mistakes in life and done things we all regret. If anybody sat here and said they didn’t, then they are lying. It’s easy. You can’t hold a grudge forever.”

AP-ES-10-13-05 2037EDT

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